One of my favourite fellow bloggers, Yeahanotherblogger, recently posted about his experiences as a youngster with the Rolling Stones. In Stoned Again and Again, Neil (shock news: yeahanotherblogger’s a nom de plume) gives an amusing account of his lifelong ‘obsession’ (he seems far too well-balanced to be really obsessive) with Mick, Keef and those other cats. Whilst not uncritical of their present lack of output, he clearly retains an affection for them – and the depth of knowledge to link to a couple of lesser known tracks from the Stones’ first imperial period, in the mid-to-late Sixties, the latter of which, Dandelion, I’d never heard..
And it all got me thinking. As the music press goes radge bongo for their first album in years and years (of which more later) what do I think of them myself? Do they still hold any relevance today? Should I be steering Daughter and Heiress towards them (as if she’ll listen, and/or as if she’ll not have made her mind up via Youtube already) as an ineluctable part of her rock n’ roll heritage?
Some context here. I was 5 in 1967, so Pinky and Perky were more my musical bag, man. Later on, I did become aware of the Stones at a relatively young age via the magic of my older brother and sister’s record collection. I still remember being especially impressed at the cover of Sticky Fingers (1971) with its picture of a pair of well-filled jeans, and an actual zip! Come to think of it, I think Toe Blister’s still got that album – might even be worth something now.
By the time I had got through my Pinky and Perky phase, the Stones were mainly absent from such crucial sources of music we had in the UK like ‘Top of the Pops.’ Actually, in the mid to late Seventies, ToTP was pretty much the only source of new music on the TV in the UK: but by then, the Stones were rich and famous enough to be tax exiles, and didn’t deign to appear on the show. Come to think of it, given the number of TOTP presenters who’ve since had their collars felt by the constabulary for alleged – and in some cases – proven misdemeanours of the morally turpitudinous type, that was a pretty smart move.
So the Stones were gone from the current music scene, and viewed by some as part of the old guard that had to be swept away by the cleansing wave of snot that was Punk, circa 76/77. Not that it was obvious from your average disco DJ’s set of the time: as a bit of relief from Rose Royce, Gloria Gaynor, and the like, a few ‘classic’ Stones numbers were generally thrown into the set: but then, Paint It Black, Ruby Tuesday, Brown Sugar are the like are pretty damn danceable, after all. I was always intrigued by the opening bars of ‘Black,’ especially: that sitar!
So the Stones were great to party on to. But in terms of still being relevant? I remember hearing ‘Start Me Up,’ the single off ‘Tattoo You’ in 1981, by which time I was a 19-year-old serious-minded student of Rock (that wasn’t my actual degree, but it might as well have been – see earlier post on my ill-judged attempts to become the next Bruce Dylansteen). I was pretty underwhelmed. Still am, in fact – I always felt that was the beginning of the end for the fabled Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership.
Then, a long period passed – in fact, most of the Eighties and Nineties – when, for me at least, the Stones were more about the myth than the music. Specifically, the Glimmer Twins legend. It was almost as if the two of them had realised the game was up with a clever tune and a lyric and decided to construct a whole new mythology instead. Mick became cast as the stereotypical Lead Singer: vain, self-obsessed, good with the media; Keith, on the other hand, was the cool one, the moody Guitarist with the tortured-artist addictions and the piratical dress sense.
Other parts of the Stones’ actual history were grist to the mill of the myth: tragic, mysterious early death of founder member; bad acid and stabbing at Altamont as the band played on with ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ drugs busts, Redlands, Marianne Faithfull and that Mars Bar. The Establishment was trying to take them down, man. Even exile in France wasn’t so much as prudent tax avoidance as sticking it to the Man.
Along the way, certain inconvenient truths were buried, particularly around Brian Jones’s part in the early years. It was interesting to read, last year, Keef’s autobiography, Life, and more or less straight afterwards Paul Trynka’s biography of Jones. The latter gives a possibly slightly overstated version of Jones’s significance, but it does show how it was his band originally, how Mick and Keef marginalised him, and eventually left him with no place at all. Jones was far from blameless in all of this – he doesn’t seem to have been a particularly nice person, and he clearly ‘had issues’ – but it’s the way he’s been written out of the band’s history that’s striking.
Back to the Sage of Dartford though. Don’t get me wrong: respect is due from any guitar player for how, following Jones’s departure, Keef was largely responsible for refining the Stones’ sound around a riffing, country-blues vibe that played to the band’s strengths, along the way collaborating with Mick Taylor and then Ronnie Wood in a way that stepped away from the lead/rhythm guitarist paradigm and, instead, paved the way for a more egalitarian twin-guitar approach. And don’t be put off by my comments about his autobiography: it is highly entertaining, especially about the drugs busts, and well written. There’s even a section on tunings which will help you to work out how to play his stuff more accurately.
Look, I see myself as a guitarist rather than a lead singer, so like why wouldn’t I want to be a bit more Keith Richards? Indeed, I often feel the answer to many of my life’s dilemmas might well be, ‘what would Keith Richards do?’ And ‘Gimme Shelter,’ which very definitely has Keef’s fingerprints all over it, is my favourite Stones song ever.
It’s just, well, I dunno. He kind of takes the credit away from everyone else, somehow?
So, in his bio, he claims the only reason they recruited Bill Wyman was he had a big old bass amp. That famous meeting of Jagger and him on the railway platform at Dartford? He only got talking to the cat because of his record collection. In a recent interview with Uncut to push the new album, ‘Blue and Lonesome,’ he uses the same reason for hooking up with Brian Jones: ‘Brian was the first person I knew that had a Robert Johnson record … Very rare. That’s when I captured him. “I’ll take you, and the record!”‘
See what I mean? Even Mick Jagger’s apparent upturn in harmonica playing on the new album, according to the same interview, is down to him, via Ronnie Wood: as the interview puts it, ‘the two men worked discreetly, good-naturedly stoking Jagger’s enthusiasm for the harmonica.’ You can’t – or at least I can’t – help feeling a tad sorry for Brenda, as Keef calls him: forever guilty of acts of lead singerism, dependent on his guitarists to jolt him into harp-playing reanimation, the eternally uncool straight man.
Will I be buying ‘Blue and Lonesome?’ Nah. Partly because that pure, unadulterated blues isn’t really my thing, but also because, well, if I want to listen to the blues, there’s an excellent local band called Lights Out By Nine I could go and see in a small venue. I’d rather give them the money, same way I’d rather go see my good friend Norman Lamont recently (and contribute to Edinburgh Foodbanks in the process) perform his ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ live than go and see the non-Nobel Prize Ceremony attending old curmudgeon himself when he reaches Glasgow on 7th May (plus I’m working that night, come to think of it).
Still, Keith. We’ll always have Gimme Shelter…and to be fair, even the story of its recording is the stuff of legend.